Battlefront: part two
He shrugged extravagantly, as for the second time his fingers probed its depths. If she would quit tapping her foot and glaring at him with such vigilance, he would drop this, listen for its ring against the floorboard, spin round as though following the coin’s trajectory with his eyes, and note―as it might seem―its coming to rest near the door. He would show to Madame Masle the bright face of discovery. Then, feckless, idiotic, moving at a crouch, he would say, “Ah, I see it, just there!”
And, once within reach of the door, bolt.
The plan would not be easy to execute while toting a heavy bag…it had been as well that Madame Masle, rather than insist on her money or the gendarme, had put her face close to his, looked him up and down as though memorizing both features and costume, and turned on her heel, saying, with her back to Honoré, “You had better go, monsieur. Since you are unable to pay your bill.”
He waited for the train to pass. It had scarcely—as it rattled along the village outskirts, with as many cars coupled on as the locomotive could pull, each loaded beyond capacity―picked up speed. Yet the last of the rolling stock was now in sight; Honoré must leap or choose not to. He’d nearly counted himself finished. He had never jumped a moving train; he was certain he couldn’t do it…but, with a shake of the head—and drawing a breath to brace himself—he muttered: “No, I have got this far. I ought to try.”
He began to jog, swinging an arm back and forth. He saw a door—to his dismay, a car’s length distant—appear to open itself from within. He mustered the whole of his strength, broke into a run, heaved the satchel as he came even with the car’s center compartment, heard a crack as the wooden paint box packed inside knocked against some outcropping of brass trim; heard a muffled impact as the bag landed…where?
The exertion had caused the leg that bore his weight to fly into a skid, throwing Honoré onto one knee. Before he could jump to his feet, the trace of the bag’s trajectory was drowned by an explosion of shouting, hooting, whistling, thumping. Every window that could be lowered now had a head thrust out of it. He flailed onwards, frightening himself, coming so near the wheels…yet the train’s pace continued torpid.
“Put up your hands!”
“Come closer! Watch your feet!”
Two men crowded onto the little platform by which passengers stepped up into the compartment; but only the first, the skirt of his tunic bunched in the grip of an unseen comrade, had the freedom to reach any distance. He clasped forearms with Honoré. The other, who had flattened himself against the hinges, now lunged, pivoting from the hand that anchored him, and caught Honoré by the trouser seat. Together his rescuers, after a difficult few minutes, hauled him aboard. Once more, he gasped his thanks and apologies; he had done this, by now, three or four times. Disheveled, embarrassed, out of breath and stifling a cough, Honoré lowered his eyes, and let himself be shoved forward. He then coughed three times, tripped, swiveled on one foot, took a single meticulous step between a pair of boots―
Something weighty sailed over the seatback from the adjoining compartment. Honoré flinched; the projectile collided with his shoulder and dropped into his path. It landed canted against another pair of boots. His satchel had come back to him. He was caught from behind.
“You had better stop just here, and sit on your bag.”
Air rushed whistling past, a clean, bruised scent of pastureland eddied warm into the close compartment, and Honoré, swaying on his feet, felt precarious with his back to the open door. Up the car, down the car, as sun and shade flickered over a veil of dust motes, he squinted. There was no better seat. There was no other seat. Even at each division where benches met back to back, someone sat with a knee on either side, a hand pressed flat against the carriage ceiling. Honoré noticed one or two passengers wearing civilian clothes. Indeed, M. Le Brun sat in a dim corner, crunched against a tiny wedge of seat-cushion, elbows over his knees, staring fixedly at a scrap of paper, and jabbing at it with a pencil.
“Make room, make room! Kick that baggage out the door!”
Threat or joke, Honoré sank, straddling the satchel with his knees; at the same instant, as though a shot had felled him, the door banged shut on a gust of wind. He looked up into the face of the speaker.
“I apologize.” The point seemed worth making again. “You have all been very kind.”
“On the contrary, we have all been waiting for you.”
Patently—the officer’s grin proved it—this was the beginning of an extended joke.
“Yes, the Prussian has won a scuffle or two, and he has become too much encouraged.” On the face of it, he addressed this new arrival, for whom they had waited; but as each man, whether smirking or mock-sober, fell silent, the captain sat up straighter, and nudged his boot across Honoré’s knees, propping his heel on the edge of the seat opposite. He then leaned back and settled the other heel over his ankle. With a show of making way for his superior’s feet, a sergeant lifted the cap and coat he held on his lap, and dropped them―first the cap, onto Honoré’s head, then the coat, which he draped over the cap. Honoré, not entirely humiliated, felt almost safe sheltered in this temporary darkness—but he could not breathe.
(copyright 2017 Stephanie Foster)